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       Eldnium, p.9

           Enoch Pyle, Jr
 
What woke Jackson the next day wasn't the light creeping into the storm drain. It was the grumbling siren emitted by the convoy of mysteriously-clad soldiers that had killed Officer Randall Thorpe the evening before. Only now, it was accompanied by a symphony of other noises. Clanking, grinding, thumping, pounding.

  Blood had crusted over where Jackson's fingernail had been torn away. It throbbed a little, but was mostly numb from the cold. Jackson remembered a documentary on the dangers of frostbite, and wondered if he'd lose that finger altogether. After all, he'd been in the cold all night.

  The wind blowing into the storm drain was cruel and relentless. His lips were dry and chapped, and his head ached as if a spike was being hammered into his left temple. The pain transformed what might have been a devastating gunshot wound to his leg into something that seemed like nothing more than a pinprick, but a pinprick nonetheless. It was evidence that the day before had been no nightmare.

  The siren blared on, differently than before…stationary. It echoed against the metal of the storm drain until the entire pipe quivered in submission. Careful to stay in the shadows of the drain, Jackson crawled toward the mouth of the tube, hoping to get a peek at the state of things. The vibrations moved through his arms and legs, tingling.

  Outside, people herded through the streets, moving purposefully from here to there. Two women were disassembling a street lamp. A man and a child not much younger than Jackson were cutting sheet metal from a red hatchback parked at the corner. A man with a cane was tugging on a street sign that read, "No Parking," trying to rip it from the bolts that fastened it there.

  They were devouring everything, stripping the town to its skeleton, oblivious to the cold, wind and snow.

  Jackson watched an elderly woman in a flowered dress drag a large sheet of metal roofing down the street. Stacked on top were stone bricks of different shapes and sizes and chunks of fractured glass. And she wasn't alone. At least twenty others—men, women and children—were trekking rubble eastward on 7th Avenue, taking it…somewhere.

  Jackson leaned forward a little, trying to peer around the corner, to get a sense of what was happening. He shifted his weight onto his hands, curled his fingers around the outer edge of the drain, and slowly peeked his head out of the pipe, the light of the morning sun slipping against his face.

  A hand wearing a thick, leather glove reached out at him and took hold of the back of his head. It squeezed, ripping some hair from the root, and then pulled ferociously, forcing more pain to shoot into Jackson's brain. And then the hand steered his head until he was staring into a pair of empty eyes, void of thought and pretense.

  Jackson reached back and grabbed hold of the man's hand, trying to pry himself free, watching the man's mouth open into a gaping maw, filled with cracked and broken teeth. Dried blood flaked from the man's lips as his mouth opened wider and wider, and Jackson pictured him tearing apart some weird contraption with his bare teeth.

  And then the man screamed, loudly and with directive. A signal, almost. Jackson, still struggling to free himself, saw the people in the street stop what they were doing, drop their scraps, and turn toward the commotion.

  Jackson worked his legs out from under himself and started kicking, trying to negotiate his freedom by dealing out his own brand of pain, but unable to force the man to loosen his grip. The people in the street started running toward the storm drain, some further away than others, but all of them dangerously close. They flowed together, quickly, efficiently, like a flock of doves. Jackson delivered a stern, crunch-inducing kick to the man's face, but it had no effect. The man just continued to scream. And the people in the street continued their approach.

  And then a noise split the air, like the crack of a whip. It was crisp, succinct, and it drowned out the entire world. It beat against Jackson's head with waves of pressure. Jackson looked into the man's eyes and watched him take two short blinks, just before his head disappeared into a rain of blood and bone. The people running toward them stopped and stood in place, staring ahead with vacant expressions, their eyes twitching like the eyes of dreaming children. A high-pitched ringing followed the initial blast and echoed outward, into the street, turning the storm drain into a megaphone of sorts.

  Jackson's ears were buzzing, and he almost didn't hear the voice deep within the drain shouting, "Come on!" The ringing was dizzying, and it took him a moment to reorient himself, but he did hear the voice, eventually, just as the people in the road began to stir again, resuming their beeline toward Jackson. "Get up! Hurry!"

  It was the first voice Jackson had heard since his last conversation with Officer Thorpe, and Jackson figured any voice was better than no voice. Especially since this particular voice seemed to be trying to save his life. So Jackson grabbed his backpack, spun around and disappeared into the darkness of the factory's labyrinth of storm drains, following the thumping and splashing of his rescuer's footsteps.

  As they hurried along, the screaming of the people in the street became quieter. Jackson didn't know if they were following, falling behind, or stuck like zombies at the entrance of the drain, unable to figure out how to climb in. Regardless, he was happy to have the nightmare fading away behind him.

  They wormed their way through tunnels that grew wider, taller and darker, until they were stumbling blindly and Jackson heard, "Okay, it gets a little narrow here. We'll have to crawl. I'll boost you up and follow after you."

  "Where are we?" Jackson asked. "Where are we going?"

  "We don't have time for that now," the voice said. "They know where we are. We have to keep moving."

  A pair of hands grabbed Jackson under the shoulders and lifted him up to some sort of metal ledge sticking out of what were now concrete walls. Jackson pulled himself onto it and felt around for what was a small, square hole—for ventilation, maybe.

  "Just follow the shaft," the voice said.

  And Jackson did. As he moved deeper into the walls, he heard his rescuer climb in, following closely behind.

  The base of the shaft was dry and dusty. Jackson could feel that they were stirring some of the dust around, and it was starting to crust around his nostrils and the corners of his mouth. The crawling caused the pinprick feeling in his wounded leg to reveal itself as a more vicious injury. The pain stretched from his ankle to his knee, a razor of a thing, slicing to the bone. If not for the fleck of light Jackson saw bouncing around ahead of him, he would have given up right there…waited to see which would kill him first, the people in the street or starvation.

  "There's a vent ahead," the voice said. "Crawl down into the room below. I'm right behind you."

  The light grew brighter, and soon Jackson could make out the edges of the vent. As promised, it opened to a room below them. Jackson peeked cautiously over the edge. It was a good six-foot drop from the vent to the top of a metal desk. Jackson shuffled around, so as to go feet first. He slipped his backpack through the hole, then dropped down to the table, the impact shooting fire up his leg. He winced and fell, catching himself with the palms of his hands. Sucking air through his teeth, he rolled to the side, stumbled off the table and fell to the floor.

  His rescuer came through next, wingtips tapping down against the desk. He was a fairly tall man, poorly dressed and scruffy faced. His hair was messy, dusty, flecks of gray growing here and there. He pulled a pair of glasses from the bridge of his nose and wiped them on his shirt before replacing them.

  "You're hurt?"

  Jackson, still on the floor, clutching his leg, answered, "Yeah. I was shot. Grazed, I think. Last night."

  The man knelt down and rolled up Jackson's pant leg. Underneath was a speck of a wound surrounded by a spiderweb of black lines.

  "Infection," the man said. "Blood poisoning, maybe. Or worse."

  "Worse?" Jackson asked.

  "This isn't a gunshot wound, though. See this?" The man pointed to a small hole at the back of Jackson's leg. "This is a needle mark. A puncture wound. What do you remember about being shot?"

&n
bsp; "I don't know," Jackson answered. "I was at home, packing a bag. I looked out the window, saw these men shoot my friend…the next thing I knew, they were in my house, chasing me. I escaped through a window, but not before they shot me."

  "Your friend? Who?"

  "Officer Thorpe. A policeman. They shot him through the face, right in my driveway."

  The man looked puzzled. He stood up and walked to the other side of the room where he stared at the wall as if it were a window. When he turned around, his brow was furrowed and the creases around his nose and mouth were deeper. "What do you know about this? Anything? Is there anything else you can tell me?"

  "I don't know anything. We had been on the road not five minutes before the convoy showed up. One minute, everything was normal. The next…"

  The man was breathing heavily. Stress. Jackson had seen the same expression planted across his mother's face countless times, most often when she didn't know he was looking. It was an unsettling thing, now more than ever.

  "Are we safe here?" Jackson asked.

  "For now. Where are your parents?"

  Jackson hesitated. "Dead."

  "Both of them?"

  "Yes. My dad died in service, and my mom died last week."

  Again, with furrowed brow, the man said, "Listen, I can't take care of you. I can't have you holding me back, slowing me down. Can you make it on your own?"

  "I don't know," Jackson answered. And that was true. Things outside had changed.

  "Do you have a weapon?"

  "Just a pocket knife."

  The man looked frustrated for a moment and then reached behind his back and pulled a revolver from his belt. He looked at it carefully, reluctantly running his thumbs over the grip. He held it out to Jackson. "Take this. There are two shots left. Don't waste them. This is the safety. Flip it up, like this. Then, just aim and shoot."

  The gun felt cold and heavy and, to Jackson, looked much larger in in his own hands. "What about you?"

  The man turned his back to Jackson and walked toward the door at the far end of the room. He looked back, over his shoulder, just for a moment, long enough to say, "Get out of here before they start to tear this place apart. Head south…where it's warmer…until you can't hear the siren."

  "Is that where you're going? South?"

  The man didn't answer. He opened the door, and sunlight burst into the room, carrying with it the bleeding undertone of the siren and snow dust twisted by a whirling winter wind. Then, the man disappeared into the world outside, leaving a lonely and lost child at the mercy of a new world.

  Jackson looked down at the gun in his hands. It felt cold and…silent. And then he heard a scream—a steady, solid tone. The same scream bleated by the hair puller at the storm drain, but from a different voice. Jackson crawled quickly to the door.

  Outside, a young girl—six or seven years old—had hold of the man's wrist, pulling his arm, trying to anchor him in place. And the man fought back, bashing the child's face with the back of his fist. His hand was covered in blood, and while Jackson couldn't see the girl's face, he imagined it to be a mess.

  But it didn't deter the screaming.

  Three or four dozen people were rushing to help the little girl subdue the man. They scaled the fences around the factory yard like crazed monkeys. They sprinted quickly, fluidly, moving into formation—a giant wall of arms and hands, all reaching for the man.

  And then the rescuer was screaming, both arms restrained, his legs pulled out from under him, three or four pairs of hands clenching at his head, fingers pressed into his eyes. The people held him there, elevated waist high. Pulling. Harder and harder.

  Jackson closed the door, quickly and quietly. He moved to the desk and scooted it across the concrete floor, its metal legs screeching. He wedged it against the door and effectively barricaded himself inside.

  He heard a final scream from the man, and then the silence of the siren groaning incessantly.

  The siren. A noise that shook walls and busted glass just twenty-four hours ago was already beginning to seem peaceful, given the alternative.

  Jackson curled up against the wall, waiting. He couldn't get to the vent without moving the desk back to its original place, but moving the desk meant weakening the barricade.

  There was a tiny window near the top of the door, the room's only source of light. Jackson climbed up on the desk and peeked out, trying to figure out what the crazy people from the street would do next. He figured they may just go back to what they were doing before they'd been distracted by the rescuer, but the worst case scenario would be that they go after the nearest structure and start ripping it apart. If that were to happen, they'd be all over Jackson's hiding place in a matter of minutes. Jackson had to make a move.

  And so he watched them, patiently, as they stood around a mess of blood and clothing. They didn't pause long before turning and walking casually back toward their previous, individual, projects. Jackson figured the man was laying within the lumps of cloth in however many pieces it took to kill a man by ripping him apart, joint by joint.

  Jackson turned around, his back to the door, and sat down on the desk. If he could wait for the stragglers to make their way out of the factory yard, he could get outside and figure out where he was and where he'd need to go to get away from these people.

  His pant leg had slipped back down, covering his wound, so he rolled it up again, wanting to have another look. He hissed as he rolled his jeans; the skin around the puncture wound was tender to the touch.

  He ran a finger across the spider webbed veins. He knew that there was definitely something wrong. He was no doctor, but he didn't think it was an infection. He was pretty sure that infections came with fevers, and a quick back-of-the-hand check of his forehead suggested that he was still within the limits of what a person might consider normal body temperature. (And with the feeling coming back to his fingers, likely clear of being captured by frostbite, as well.)

  So what, then? What, if not biological, could be creeping through his body? And how could he treat it if the city's only doctors were currently trying to chew the lug nuts off of some busted minivan?

  Penicillin.

  He'd read about it in a book. It was supposed to cure almost anything, and if he was at the factory, the hospital should be nearby, within a block or so. He could make it that far, he figured, but not much further. Running from those people in the street would be difficult with a healthy leg. With his funky leg? Impossible.

  He climbed off of the desk and unzipped his bag, shoving the gun inside the largest pocket. It clanked against his dad's pocket knife, and Jackson realized that his rescuer may still be alive if he hadn't given Jackson his only defense. But he couldn't worry about that. He had to keep moving. So in the bag it went, and he threw the straps of the backpack over his shoulders and turned back to the door.

  Through the window, he could see that the yard had cleared. There were no people in sight. He ran the danger of running into someone working next to the door, just out of the window's peripheral, but it was a risk he'd have to take. So he climbed down and pushed the desk away from the door.

  The metal legs squealed again, and Jackson worried it would draw attention. Then, he realized that the people out there weren't attracted to noise—they were making plenty of their own, after all. They were attracted to people that weren't doing what they were supposed to be doing. As long as he stayed out of sight, Jackson figured he'd be able to go wherever he wished.

  He opened the door just a bit and put one eye to the crack. He could see most of the factory yard, and it was still clear of the street people. It was also surrounded by a fence. At the far end, by the road, a gate and gatehouse guarded the lot. They were a good seventy yards away. Beyond the gate, he could see a half dozen street people disassembling a row of newspaper stands lined up in front of a bakery.

  I know that bakery, he thought. That's south.

  He knew that the gate would be the easiest way out, but even if
he could make it to the gatehouse, it wouldn't take the street people long to notice him and dig him out of whatever hiding place he managed to find.

  He'd have to find another way past the factory fences. With no other view of the outside, he knew that his only option was to just start moving, to steer clear of the gate and hope that there would be a hole in the fence on the north side of the factory lot.

  As he stepped outside, his fear began to melt away. The siren was blaring, but he barely noticed. His leg was little more than a nuisance. The feeling he had at that moment…it was survival. Primal.

  He crouched low and moved against the exterior of the office until he met the end of the wall. Once there, he peeked around the corner and saw a set of stairs that connected to an elevated walkway. At the base of the stairs stood the young girl that first grabbed the man who'd saved Jackson. She was rattling the handrail, shaking it back and forth, trying to loosen it, no doubt.

  Jackson brought his backpack around to his side and unzipped it. He tried to do so quietly, his instincts telling him not to startle the girl, but his mind telling him that he could whip out a tuba and play Stairway to Heaven and still not grab her attention. He reached inside, felt the gun but passed it up for the pocket knife. Too natural a movement…he didn't recognize himself, but he couldn't stop.

  Kill or be killed.

  He flicked open the blade and slowly turned the corner, prepping a sneak attack. But the girl turned around just as Jackson had started inching toward her. Her eyes reflected the setting sun, her face bloodied, yet long and sober. And then it happened. He recognized her. And he thought she recognized him, because she just stood there, her expression more puzzled than vacant.

  Jackson stopped moving, and they stared at each other, like a hunter in standoff with a deer…though Jackson was unsure of just who was predator and who was prey.

  "Matti?" She didn't respond, but Jackson knew it was her. "Matti, what's happening?"

  Still staring at Jackson with wonder, blood freezing into little icicles as it dripped from her nose, the girl took a step forward. Jackson cautiously shifted to a more defensive stance. And then she turned around and went back to wriggling the stair rail.

  Jackson's stared at her, dumbly, with wide eyes. He couldn't figure out what had just happened. Had he been spared?

  It didn't matter. He had to get moving. If he could make it to the hospital before sunset, he could find a supply closet in which to spend the night. He could be safe there…for a while, at least.

  And so he hurried along, ignoring his wounded leg, and made his way around the side of the main office building. There were no street people there, so he moved away from the wall and sprinted as well as he could with a still aching leg.

  The wind bit at his face. He'd forgotten how cold the air could get when the sun started to set on these late winter days, and if the sun was already setting, it meant that he had been unconscious in that storm drain for almost twenty-four hours. An entire night, undiscovered because he was sleeping in the shadows. It was obvious to him now that being undiscovered was a good thing.

  And so he changed his plan. He'd make his way to the hospital and find a place to sleep until well after dark. He'd travel at night. North. Away from the city, but first to his foster parents' house. They were far enough outside of the city limits…they might still be nestled by a fire, wondering why the power is out.

  They might know what to do…where to find help. He knew that they were his only chance.

  As he reached the far edge of the factory, he slowed his pace, inching closer to the wall, cautiously taking cover. The fence that wrapped around the rear of the factory stretched into the air about thirty yards away. Jackson watched as a man wearing nothing but a pair of white briefs with holes near the waistband worked to unfasten the chain link fencing from one of the fence's metal posts. It appeared that the man had been successful in removing an entire section already, and the resulting hole would have to be Jackson's way out. But getting past Underwear Man was going to be a problem.

  Fortunately, the street on this side of the factory was clear of people. Jackson could see the hospital towering over a strip mall, the windows of which were busted out. It was only a block away. If Jackson could get past the man at the fence, he could easily cross the street and move closer to the hospital, building by building.

  He still had the knife in his hand, blade out. And so he ran, the pain in his leg arching into his hip.

  Underwear Man wasn't alarmed by the sound of Jackson's feet pounding against the snow-dusted grass. He didn't see Jackson approaching. The fence…the fence was too important. But when Jackson was within arm's reach, the man made a strange, jerking movement, and Jackson was startled enough to slip his father's pocket knife into the back of Underwear Man's neck—an eerily natural movement. The man's eyes opened wide, his mouth dropped open, and his body slumped to the ground with a jitter.

  Jackson's hand began to shake. He looked at it as if it didn't belong to him at all—someone else's hand, surely. The hand of a ruthless killer, or an act in the name of survival, Jackson couldn't tell. He fell to his knees, tears forming against his eyes, the pain in his leg nothing but a dull ache in the back of his mind.

  He wanted to cry for help, but no one was there to answer.

  His life had been repeatedly ripped apart by death, starting with his father, a man Jackson valued above everything, and ending with this man…a man he didn't even know. But somehow, Jackson knew that this wouldn't be the last of the dead bodies haunting his dreams. There would be more killing, at his hands or at the hands of the street people.

  It didn't matter. He had to keep moving.

  Jackson reached across the man's torso, Jackson's hand still shaking, the man's eyes still fluttering as his brain fizzled its last spark. He grabbed the knife and pulled it out of Underwear Man's neck. He gave it two quick wipes against the man's briefs, leaving some blood behind, and flipped the blade closed. He shoved the knife into his pocket, stood up, and ran across the street, anxious to be hidden from what had just taken place.

  Snow dust blew through the street, hitting Jackson in the face. His nose was runny, his eyes watery. He told himself that it was the wind…just the wind…but he really just wanted to look back over his shoulder. He wanted to see Underwear Man calmly fiddling with the fence again. Or better yet, for the last four years of his life to be a dream. He wanted to wake up and see daddy eating cereal at the counter in his superhero boxers and white tank top. He wanted to hear mommy singing in the shower. He wanted to sit on his bed, pretending to read Animal Farm. But he knew that those days were gone. And on a deeper level, he knew that, even if the government were to sweep in and take care of this insane situation, he would never be the same.

  He could never be the same. Twelve-year old Jackson died with that man at the fence…

  Jackson put a hand on the door of one of the strip mall shops—Groomlies, a pet grooming shop, by the looks of it. He tugged at the door, but it wouldn't budge.

  Locked.

  The plate glass window that spanned the front of the shop was busted, but the bottom edge was littered with broken glass. Jackson laid his backpack across the windowsill and, using it as a protective layer for his hands, climbed through with ease. He picked up his backpack, swept it clean of snow and broken glass, and put it back on his shoulders.

  Snow had crept into the shop since the windows had been broken, and most of the shop's supplies were completely gone. The street people had already been to this side of the factory…that's why it was so empty, Jackson supposed. He could see where there had been tables, chairs, potted plants. He could even see that some of the tile had been ripped up. And where the tile was still good, he noticed a bright and shiny section—an outline of a countertop that had been completely removed.

  He moved cautiously through the store. He knew that the shop should have a rear entrance. He had seen store employees use them in places like this when they'd take a smoke brea
k. He knew the door would lead to an ally, the ally to another door, that door to another shop, and that shop to the front of the hospital.

  Piece of cake, he thought.

  He turned into the hallway that led to the back of the store and found the exit. There was a big metal push bar on it that read, "Emergency Exit," and, "Door will sound alarm if opened." He didn't know if the alarm would work without power to the building, but he knew he had to try. So he pushed against the bar.

  The door clicked and swung outward into the alley behind the store. Jackson could see the back of another shopping strip ahead, lined with doors, as expected. But none of them with handles. They couldn't be opened from the outside, and it reminded Jackson of something his dad used to say.

  Nothing of value ever comes easy.

  Jackson sighed. He'd have to go through the alley and move through the street to get to the hospital. His leg was aching, but he knew that he would have to run. He couldn't risk another standoff with one of people in the street. And so, again, he ran.

  Down the alleyway, he sprinted. Each time his foot would strike the pavement, a jagged spike of pain would shoot up his leg. But he just kept breathing.

  In.

  Out.

  In.

  Out.

  His breathing melted into a rhythm, matching his footsteps, merging together in perfect unison. It was graceful. Beautiful, even,

  The end of the alley drew nearer, but he didn't hesitate, not even at the idea that he might be running into a hundred street people. He just kept the rhythm going, and he broke into the street with a renewed burst of energy. He didn't even notice the half dozen street people hard at work. He didn't see them turn and look his way, their eyes empty and their mouths drawn open. He didn't notice the old man disassembling the bus stop signpost trying to grab him as he ran by. He kept his stride, right through the hospital's broken revolving door and past reception.

  Even inside, he didn't slow his pace. He didn't really notice that he was being followed by people moving fast enough to catch him, and catch him soon. He was focused, watching for stairway signs, and he followed them. He didn't stop to catch his breath or rest his leg until he had entered a stairwell and closed the door behind him.

  And then it all came flooding back.

  Over the excruciating pain in his leg, he could hear the feet of the street people pattering across the tile floor in the lobby. He could hear the siren penetrating the walls of the hospital. He heard the first of the street persons pound into the stairwell door, their hands smacking against it haphazardly. And he heard his brain screaming at him.

  KEEP MOVING.

  And so, up the stairs he went.

  He rounded the first set just as the street people came through the door, but he kept moving, undeterred. He continued up three more flights, high enough that he could no longer see the street people chasing after him—though he could still hear their feet pounding on the stairs—and he slammed through a heavy metal door that opened into a hallway lined with rooms. The door slammed against the wall as it opened, sending pieces of plastic stopper falling to the floor, and then bounced back, closing itself behind him.

  He hobbled down the hallway, his leg throbbing miserably. He could feel it in his hip, like bones grinding together. He used the wall to his right to help him keep his balance as he came to the first room.

  It was a standard hospital room. He'd seen a few on TV, but never in real life. No, in real life, he saw funeral homes.

  Through the room's window, he could see the sun setting and casting an orange glow across the beds sitting parallel to each other in the center of the room. It didn't surprise Jackson that neither bed was occupied. The entire hospital was dark. No life support. No emergency backup. And as he moved from this room to the next, his mental image of a hospital packed with death were further confirmed. An elderly man with blue glasses was laying in a bed alone, his covers tucked tight, his eyes closed. He seemed to be sleeping, but Jackson knew that he was dead. In another few days, the man would begin to stink, to rot, to melt into the bed.

  It was unsettling, to see him that way. Left alone. Forgotten when he should have been cared for. Jackson felt as if he was looking into a magical mirror…one that showed a person's insides.

  It was darker now, the daylight quickly fading away. Jackson looked down the hall. It was clear that the street people had given up chasing him, but he knew he needed to find a place to sleep until midnight, somewhere safe from wandering street persons, should they be chipping away at the interior of the hospital. He also needed a way to treat his leg. He had no idea where hospitals kept penicillin, but he did know there should be a supply closet somewhere in the hallway, and a supply closet would be a great place to seek safety.

  Safety first.

  He could see a closed door with a placard just down the hall. So he picked up his speed a bit, hearing what he thought was the echo of his footsteps. But it wasn't an echo. It was someone…a street person, maybe. Jackson didn't take the time to figure out who, or what, it was. He quickly ducked into an open janitorial closet and closed the door.

  It was dark enough inside that he couldn't see anything but a sliver of light crawling beneath the door,

  He put his hands on the doorknob, trying to feel for a lock, but the knob was smooth. He ran his right hand up along the door, above the knob, feeling for a deadbolt. When he found it, he flicked it closed and carefully backed deeper into the closet.

  He could hear the person in the hall drawing nearer, shoes clicking against the tile. He got down on his belly and watched through the crack under the door. He held his breath, afraid that the smallest noise would give away his position. Afraid that the closet would become his tomb,

  But the feet moved by without hesitation, just two quick shadows in the light,

  He waited another couple of moments and then heard the door to the stairwell open and close.

  Jackson was alone, and relieved to be.

  He let out a sigh and propped himself into a sitting position. He pulled the backpack from his shoulders, fished around inside it for the sweater he'd stuffed in it the day before, and fashioned the tightly knitted garment into a make-shift pillow.

  And then Jackson laid down his head, closed his eyes, and fell asleep…by his own free will.

  Day Three

  Jackson didn't know what time it was when he woke, safely hidden within a closet on the third floor of the Center City Emergency Hospital. He was still tired, his eyes heavy. He could have slept another few hours, easy. But he had a feeling travel would be easiest by night; so he had to get moving.

  He wanted to head to the roof of the hospital first—to get a good look at the surrounding streets. He thought that, with a bird's eye view, he might be able to find out which were empty and which were infested with street people.

  He slipped the straps of his backpack onto his shoulders and put an ear to the door of the closet, listening for any troublesome sounds echoing through the hospital walls.

  Silence. No taps, groans or clanks. No humming of electricity and no rattling pipes. Only the siren. He took the doorknob with his right hand and slowly turned it. He tried to inch the door open, but it wouldn't budge.

  Jammed?

  No. Locked. He'd forgotten to release the deadbolt.

  He slid his hand through the dark, along the door, just above the knob, until he felt the cool metal of the lock against his fingertips. It was higher than he remembered, and harder to turn. The lock clicked, and he eased the door open. A dim shaft of light fell against his face, a sliver through his right eye, the moonlight creeping through windows and slithering down the corridors.

  The hallway was empty, not at all matching his mind's vision of what a post-apocalyptic hospital corridor should be. There were no holes in the walls, no dangling fluorescent lights. Papers weren't strewn about, littering the ground with the secret ailments of hundreds of now-dead hospital patrons. It appeared the only disarray to the entire city cam
e after the world had ended.

  The world has ended.

  It sounded strange in Jackson's mind…premature. Had the world ended? Was it like this everywhere? Was the global population busy tearing apart everything mankind had assembled in the last hundred years?

  He hoped that the Saples would be snuggled in bed at home, and that his knocking on their door would wake them from their sleep. He hoped that his horrific story would be news to them…unexpected…that they were outside the radius of the siren, should such a radius exist. But all his hopes were contingent on whether or not he could get out of the city.

  The stairwell waited at the end of the hallway, so he started in that direction, moving as quickly as he could with a throbbing leg, keeping a watchful eye on the surroundings in hopes that any useful and abandoned items would catch his attention. But there wasn't much to see, and the moonlight seemed to do a better job of casting shadows than illuminating the hall.

  He reached the stairwell and started climbing. He'd never been to the roof of a building before…at least not one like this. In movies, it seemed simple. At the top of every stairwell stood a big, red door that led to the roof. But he thought the door to the roof couldn't possibly be accessible to everyone. Surely it would be well hidden, or locked, or both.

  After passing the fifth floor landing, Jackson rounded the final flight of stairs, eyes adjusting to the lack of moonlight, and what he saw surprised him—a blue door standing at the top of the stairs. On it, a sign laid pasted just above a large, red lever. The sign read, "NOT AN EXIT," and a sticker on the lever had, "ALARM WILL SOUND," written across it.

  Jackson hesitated for a moment, picturing what horrible consequence might arise if he triggered an alarm, drawing attention to his position. But the hospital was dead. No power. No generators. No battery backup. In the hospital, there were no sounds but the groaning siren.

  So he opened the door and exited to the roof.

  It was beautiful, the sky, lit by a billion specks of light, the Milky Way marching across it. It shone brighter than he'd ever seen, and his first reaction was to squint. But the moon caught his eye. It sat in the horizon, as orange as the sun and five times larger. And Jackson didn't know why, but it made him feel sad…small…lonely…

  He followed the moon to the edge of the roof, noticing that most of the snow had melted away. There was a ledge there that rose chest high. He put his hands on it, the cool of the icy concrete creeping into his palms. The winter wind bit at his face.

  He'd forgotten about the cold. He figured that the hospital must have done a fair job of retaining its heat after the power had gone out. His time in the closet had offered him time to recharge after the bitter night he'd spent in the storm drain. But on the roof, unsheltered from the wind, winter again waved hello.

  In the distance, an orange glow caught Jackson's eye. It lit up an entire area beyond where the train tracks would be, and Jackson could see what once was a field being converted into…something else. The glow appeared to be a fire of some sort. He could see the silhouettes of people working around it, though he couldn't make out exactly what they were doing. Putting things in, taking things out…it looked like an improvised foundry.

  Beyond the glow, a metal structure towered into the air, a skeleton twice the height of the buildings around it. New construction. Half a sky scraper, already scraping the sky, a silhouette against the moonlight.

  In two days?

  The efficiency of the street people seemed magically ferocious, and the reason they were disassembling the city suddenly made sense to Jackson.

  They needed materials.

  They'd hunt things—metal, glass, plastic—then haul it to a makeshift foundry so that it could be melted down and used to build this…tower. But what of the murders? Why they were killing people immune to the come hither of the siren, Jackson didn't know. The why didn't much matter, though. The danger was real.

  Away from the foundry, Jackson could see Dranery Boulevard. It ran due north from the hospital to the woods at the outskirts of town, where it became a winding and rolling country road.

  And it was empty—a suitable route for escape.

  He turned around and started back toward the roof's access door. He could see surprisingly well under the full moon's light, and just as he started to wonder if the good seeing conditions might put him at risk of being captured or killed, he noticed that the door was single passage in function. No handle. No knob. No lever. No way down.

  His heart sank, blood leaving his face, his palms sweaty and cold. He took a short, stuttered breath and panicked, running toward the door with both hands outstretched, his backpack flopping against him as his feet hammered into the ground. He raised his fists to pound against the door—to scream for help—but quickly restrained himself.

  No attention, he thought. Better to freeze to death up here, to die of starvation, than to be ripped apart by the people in the streets.

  Better indeed.

  His breath was irregular, still panicked. He turned his back to the door and slid against it into a sitting position. The zipper of his bag scratched against the metal, whistling a tired screech.

  He looked into the sky, toward the sparkle of the stars, and thought to himself that there could be worse places to lose hope. The beat of a gunshot echoed against the city. A woman screamed emptily.

  The street people had found another like himself. He tried to imagine how many more there could be. How many immune. A hundred? A thousand? Or had the street people just snuffed out the last, lonely soul.

  "Not the last," he whispered to himself. "Not yet."

  The door would never open from the outside. It was latched. Closed. But Jackson figured there had to be a fire escape somewhere along the edge of the building. He could climb down. No harm, no foul. All that panic for nothing. And so he started around the edge of the roof, searching for what should have been a reasonably easy thing to find.

  He had pictured the roof as a large, rectangular thing, but it was actually composed of several tiers at differing heights. Regardless, he was able to climb around without much trouble, and it wasn't long until he found a pair of metal poles hooking over the edge of the roof and bolted into the cement wall.

  He took hold of the ladder, one pole to each hand, and peeked over the ledge. At six stories, the hospital was far from being the tallest building in town. Even the structure built by the street people was taller. But looking down from the top of the fire escape, Jackson realized that height was in the eye of the beholder.

  Fate, on the other hand, was not.

  Jackson saw just a single landing still loosely hanging from the side of the building, dangling in the air. The fire escape had been ripped apart. Disassembled. And what remained was too rickety and too far from the ground to offer any real means of escape. He realized he’d have to find another way.

  The backpack slipped from Jackson's right shoulder, and he jerked it back into place with his left hand. Inside, the gun and perfume clanked together, reminding Jackson of his mother, death, and the fact that he'd become a murderer.

  But was he? Had he had a choice in killing the man at the fence? Had there been another way?

  There's always another way, whispered his mother, a voice he shrugged away.

  It wasn't time to think about what had been happening to him…what he'd done. The name of the game had become survival. He could feel bad later, if necessary. He could break down, go into shock. But he'd have to live to later first.

  He started quickly around the south edge of the building, where the current tier ended. Below was another tier. Jackson could see a reflection of the moon against the wall of the lower landing.

  A window!

  Several, in fact. He jumped down from the taller tier, and pain jolted through his spine. He felt the infected wound on his leg throb and noticed for the first time that his fingers were numb. But he didn't slow down. He went straight for one of the windows, trying without success to find a way to o
pen it from the outside.

  Unfortunately, it wasn't that kind of window. It was plate glass—

  Of course…

  —and sealed tight. Installed and forgotten. Made to allow light into the building but nothing else.

  How could they breathe without fresh air, a gentle breeze?

  Jackson had a thought. Ventilation. Perhaps there was an air duct somewhere. He could climb into the building like a secret agent. Quickly. Silently. He scanned the rooftop for any outcroppings or metalwork that looked like it would be useful, but saw nothing on the current tier. For a moment, he considered climbing back up to the main part of the roof, but a splash of red out on the horizon caught his eye.

  Sunrise.

  He had slept longer than he'd realized. The sun hadn't breached the treetops, yet, but the clock was ticking. He had to move. There was no more time for being sneaky. The night had run its course, and daybreak loomed ever nearer. He furrowed his brow, slipped the backpack from his shoulders, unzipped it and pulled out the revolver.

  It was heavy, and as he lifted it into the air, he squeezed shut his eyes.

  Not a killer, he thought. He huffed out a breath of air, and pulled the trigger.

  The recoil threw his arm back toward his head, the hot metal barrel nearly smashing into his face. At first, he'd thought the sound of the glass breaking had been muffled by the piercing explosion of gunpowder and lead. But when he opened his left eye—just a little—he was dismayed to see a bullet hole neatly carved through two panes of laminated glass. There was no shattering and no intricate spiderweb of cracks. He panicked and ran to the window, shouting and pounding against it with the revolver's handle. "No, no, no!" With each hit, he could hear the tink-tink-tink of cracking glass.

  And then the screams.

  Street people, howling in the dawn's first light. They'd heard the gunshot, Jackson was sure. He wondered if they could pinpoint his location against the echoes.

  He slammed his shoulder into the window, and the glass gave way, spilling him inside, onto a pair of filing cabinets, shards of glass plinking down around him. His momentum sent him tumbling onto the floor, the backpack and gun leaving his hands. While the backpack plopped limply to the floor, the gun slid into a dark space beneath a desk on the other side of the room.

  He got up and dusted glass from his pants, not noticing the little shards sticking into the numb skin of his palms. He squinted, trying to make out the room.

  It was an office. Filing cabinets sat beneath the windows, and two lounge chairs were positioned against the far wall with a small table between them. On the table sat some sort of potted plant, small, but not unlike the fern hanging in the corner. Against the opposite wall, a desk stood prominently with a high-backed leather chair tucked neatly beneath it. The gun had slid under the desk. Jackson grabbed his backpack and approached it.

  As he neared the head of the office, he noticed a cork board mounted to the wall behind the desk. It was covered with newspaper clippings, and one in particular caught his eye. He'd seen that particular clipping before—he'd left it in his sock drawer back home. His mother's obituary, pinned to the newspaper article describing her death and a candid photo of the accident. Scribbled over the text of the article was a number written in red ink:

  34

  The other clippings seemed to be a mix of both obituaries and birth announcements, some dating back fifty years. Each clipping had a number written on it, and one, a birth announcement, was even circled multiple times—a frantic circle—with the word "Starlite" scrawled beneath it, such that it obscured the child's actual name.

  On the desk, Jackson saw a nameplate toppled over. He turned it upright. It read, "Dr. Henry Bink, M.D." Jackson walked around the desk, to the cork board. He ran a finger against the face of his mother. It was cold, fluttering in the wind from the broken window. Her skin was always so warm, smooth…but this newspaper…

  Jackson ripped the obituary from the wall and stuffed it in his pocket. He grabbed the cork board and pulled, straining until it popped from the screws that fastened it to the wall and tumbled to the ground. It rattled against the floor, buzzing. It was a moment before Jackson realized why it vibrated against the floor.

  The siren. His brain had already started to block it out. He didn't even notice it until he saw its effects.

  He knelt to the ground and peered under the desk, where he could see the gun's silhouette. It, too, rattled against the floor, spinning slowly, clockwise… Stretching out an arm, he grabbed the gun and started to place it in the bag but changed his mind and slid it in the waistband of his pants instead. The cold, frozen metal touched the skin of his back, and shivers danced up his spine.

  He squinted against the dark, searching for a door, and spied an exit at the wall to his left. It was a wooden door, slightly ajar. He approached it, eased it open, and exited into the hallway. The door blew closed behind him, making a loud POP against the doorframe, but not latching, and instead settling back to the position in which he'd found it, the wind whistling through the crack.

  He happened to be near a stairwell, and he wasted no time hurrying down to the first floor. He pushed Bink's office out of his mind. He didn't feel as if he could think about it. At least not yet, as interesting as it was.

  Jackson exited the stairwell on the first floor and realized that he was on the wrong side of the building. Taking the nearest exit and circling around the outside of the building would be fastest, but wandering the halls until he found the main entrance would be safest.

  Safe sounded good to Jackson.

  He started down the hallway, noticing a thick stench in the air. It was horrid, but sweet. It was unlike anything he'd smelled before, but he knew exactly what it was. Three days in, and the dead bodies were starting to grow foul. The smell grew stronger and stronger until Jackson reached a large metal door. A freezer. Dozens—

  Hundreds?

  —of bodies thawing and rotting in one tiny, enclosed space.

  Jackson found himself thankful that zombies weren’t real, though street people seemed to be a pretty fair understudy.

  He rounded a corner and continued down yet another long hallway. A sign on the wall read, "Reception," indicating that he was headed in the right direction. It also listed the hospital's pharmacy as being in the same general direction. Jackson hadn't thought about it earlier, but medicine might do him good service on the road ahead—something for infections, maybe—though he couldn't quite remember the name of any specific medications. Jackson thought he might take a little of everything…just to be safe.

  His hands began to sting, and he looked down to see his palms had been splintered with glass. His leg hurt again, too, making him suck air through his teeth. This sent a pain through his chest, and he wheezed a little cough.

  Pneumonia?

  He figured medicine was a good idea and picked up his pace, his feet tapping against the tile, sending echoes against the depths of the hospital. The thought of lurking street people didn't worry him. In fact, he wasn't thinking of them much at all. He wanted to get to the pharmacy, pop some pills, and skip town before the sun topped the horizon.

  As he rounded the last corner, he saw a glint of sunlight bouncing from the floor. Ahead, the large glass entrance to the hospital blasted the light of dawn into the foyer. He almost froze in place, unable to focus on anything but the idea of street people beginning to fill the streets with the gnawing and gnashing of destruction that made them so frightening. Split-second decisions were new to him, and he found it troubling that he could so easily choose to kill Underwear Man, but deciding whether to stop for medicine or just make a break for the trees stopped him in his tracks.

  He knew that his chances were better at fighting a blood infection than fighting a horde of mindless street people, so the medicine would have to wait.

  He started running through the trees…to nowhere in particular…and he ran until he felt safe. And he sat there for what must have been hours before his mother
touched his shoulder as she sat down beside him, trees and falling leaves scattered around them, the sun rising ahead. "You know, Jackson," she whispered, "your father used to say that nothing truly dies."

  "It lives forever?"

  "That's right," she answered with a grin and a tear. "Do you see the sunlight touching the treetops?" Jackson nodded. "When we were children, your father would tell me that the souls of kings and queens lived within that light. And that they become a part of us every day. That their strength shines deep into our own souls. And when we're sad—when someone special dies—we can remember that their souls, too, live in the light of the stars."

  Jackson was skeptical. "Is that true, mommy?"

  She sighed. "In a way, I suppose. It's a nice idea, anyway. To think that the warmth of the sun is your father's love for us… I think that's a nice idea."

  Jackson raised his face to the sunlight, squinting his eyes against the glare. "Then what's a sunburn?"

  She laughed, stood, hoisted him into her arms, a squeeze of a hug. "That's Daddy telling you to listen to your mother the next time she says to wear sunscreen."

  Jackson hugged her around the neck, and she carried him out of the woods and back to her car. "You can't run like that, Jackson," she said. "Even when you're scared, you shouldn't run. You are too young to come this far on your own, and I need you."

  Jackson's jacket caught a branch and yanked him to one side. He spun around, lost his footing and fell to his back. The gun dug into his spine. He got up, pulled it from his waistband, and double checked the safety before replacing it and continuing through the dawn-stained trees.

  Starlite.

  Not appropriately spelled, but Jackson wondered if the stories his mother used to share about his father had any connection to the death notes and chicken-scratch ramblings in the office of Dr. Bink.

  Jackson thought that the cork board probably wasn't Bink's handiwork, but the imaginings of a psychotic. Bink was most likely a psychiatrist, and the psychotic a patient. Still, it wasn't just newspaper stuck to the cork board. An eerie sort of familiarity hung there, amongst the memories of life and death.

  And starlite.

 
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